Presley Rich of the Union County Historical Society was happy to give us a personal tour of the historic courthouse in Blairsville, Ga., a small mountain town located near the North Carolina border. The two-story courthouse built in 1899 with an elegant bell tower doesn’t judge folks anymore but instead houses an enormous array of county memorabilia dating back to Native Americans and early pioneers, the latter of which many came seeking gold.
Rich’s family was one of those fortune seekers who flooded the area in 1828 when gold was discovered on Coosa Creek. Georgia mountain gold was said to be 98 percent pure, Rich said.
“My family came in 1840 looking for gold,” he told us. “Apparently, they didn’t find any. My ancestor left for the California gold rush and never came back.”
Rich’s father, I might add, was Fred Rich, a songwriter who penned “Jordan,” recorded by Emmy Lou Harris and as “Cold Jordan” by the Grateful Dead.
Walking around the historic Blairsville courthouse today, across original wooden floors that creak and moan, visitors may view photographs and items used by these early residents, everything from Native American projectile points to a photo of Sarah Souther Dyer, who claims she saw the smoke of a burning Atlanta at age 6, when U.S. Gen. William T. Sherman took a match to parts of the state during the Civil War.
And then there’s Howard.
Several visitors to the Blairsville courthouse have seen a man in the second-floor courtroom. As in someone not living. A California woman even sketched out an image and it appears the man owns a beard and curly hair and wears a long jacket fashionable in the 1800s and early 1900s. A visiting paranormal society claims the man’s name is Howard, Rich said.
Once when Rich was working in the jury room, straightening photos, he felt Howard’s presence. “He grabbed my arm,” he said.
The courtroom is a must for any visit, a scene out of movies such as “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Inherit the Wind.” Hanging over the pews and prosecutor and defense desks are several ceiling fans. One, in particular, turns on its own. (It's the fan to the far right in the photo.)
“That’s the signal that Howard’s there,” Rich said.
Occasionally the courthouse organ plays when no one’s around.
So, who is this Howard?
“We think he was a visiting judge who was killed over gold,” Rich explained.
More About the Building
The building was designed by Georgian James Wingfield Golucke, the third courthouse building for the county. Golucke created courthouses throughout the state and Alabama, many of which initiated small-town squares. A 1904 article in The Atlanta Constitution noted his architectural firm as “one of the most popular and widely known firms in the city of Atlanta…” and that Golucke was “…a gentleman of fine business ability and personal magnetism, with the old-time quality of courtesy combined, and the many buildings erected by the firm all over the south bespeaks for them more than all things else.”
By the 1970s a new Union County courthouse had been built in Blairsville and the Victorian beauty in the heart of town lay in disarray. The Golucke courthouse was condemned and scheduled to be torn down for a parking lot. Several of the town’s women stopped the demolition and in 1976 started the Union County Historical Society, meant to restore the beautiful old courthouse. The building restoration cost $750,000, with another $250,000 to save the bell tower. Quite a difference from its original price tag of $12,000, which was quite hefty for its day.
On Sept. 18, 1980, the old Union County Courthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s now the town’s historical museum.
In the summer, the Society hosts concerts in the old courtroom upstairs. Keep your eyes on that ceiling fan.
The Union County Historical Society also operates the former law office of Patrick "Pat" Henry Haralson, located adjacent to the courthouse. It's slated to become a weekend welcome center for tourists.
Just south of the Square lies the Mountain Life Museum, consisting of the 1906 Grapel Mock House, the 1861 Payne Cabin and several outbuildings. The site is the home to annual events such as the Mountain Market and Heritage Festival over Labor Day Weekend where authentic foods are prepared over a fireplace, live animals are available for petting and there are heritage demonstrations and hands-on activities such as panning for gold.
A Glimpse of Howard?
I called out his name but alas, Howard didn't show his face to me. But I did catch a green glow on one of the pews. Is it Howard? You be the judge, pun intended.
Weird, Wacky & Wild South is written by travel journalist Cheré Dastugue Coen, who always loves a good ghost story. Have you seen a ghost? I'd love to hear about it. Write me via this website or follow me on Social Media.